Italy’s appointment last week of a Minneapolis Institute of Art curator to head one of the world’s legendary art museums, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, launched an international media frenzy that roiled waters from the Arno River to the Mississippi.

German-born Eike Schmidt, 47, will be the first non-Italian director in the Uffizi’s 250-year history.

He was one of seven foreigners simultaneously hired in an international competition that brought new directors to 20 of Italy’s key museums.

Schmidt got word in a predawn phone call from Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini. Within minutes queries poured in from European media and congratulations from colleagues, friends and family abroad.

“I was completely blown away,” Schmidt said Wednesday, his voice hoarse from back-to-back interviews. “It’s a dream job for anyone, a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week position at one of the best museums in the world.”

The appointments signal a dramatic restructuring of Italy’s legendarily sclerotic museum system. The new bloods are expected to shake things up by modernizing technology, fundraising, ticketing, art display and the experiences of the 40 million visitors who last year tromped through Italy’s 400 state-run museums and galleries.

When Italian culturati complained about the infusion of outsiders, Franceschini dismissed the brouhaha as “provincial,” telling the New York Times that “It’s your C.V. [curriculum vitae] that counts, not nationality.”

A Florentine “Louvre”

With its vast collection of paintings by Botticelli, Titian, Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio and other Old Masters, the Uffizi is Italy’s equivalent to the Louvre in Paris or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It commands the heart of Florence from a fortresslike building commissioned by Cosimo I di Medici in 1560.

Besides the Uffizi itself, the director oversees a complex that spans the Arno River and includes the 16th century Pitti Palace and adjacent Boboli Gardens, and about a dozen smaller museums of antiquities, silver, 18th- and 19th-century art and much else. Together they attract about 3.2 million visitors annually. (By comparison, the Minneapolis Institute of Art drew about 750,000 last year.)

“We’re very excited for him,” said Kaywin Feldman, director of the Minneapolis museum, who hired Schmidt in 2009 to beef up its collection of European sculpture and oversee its decorative arts department. “Eike is such a world-renowned specialist and scholar that his reputation precedes him and we’ve long admired his skills, his contacts and his knowledge.”

Schmidt came to Minneapolis from Sotheby’s auction house in London, where he ran the European sculpture department for a year. Before that he was an associate curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and research curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

He earned his doctorate with a dissertation on the Medicis’ collection of 16th- and 17th-century ivory sculptures, and has a thick résumé of articles, reviews and catalog essays in English, Italian and his native German. Besides “good” French, he also has a working or reading knowledge of Dutch, Spanish, Greek and Latin.

American career, Italian future

“I have spent the majority of my professional career in America with a little interruption in England, but of course there is a lot of interest from the German media,” he said. With a slightly exhausted chuckle he mentioned that he was a tad worried about two radio interviews booked for “the middle of the night, one in German and the other in Italian. I have to be awake enough to not confuse the languages.”

Schmidt was not looking for alternatives when the Italian government announced its museum reform program this spring. European friends called. He demurred at first, saying “Minneapolis is a wonderful place. We’d just done ‘The Habsburgs’ show and I’d recently published some articles and was branching out into other fields.”

But, with 20 directorships open at the same time, he applied for “several I was interested in.” The open competition for publicly-supported jobs dates to the Napoleonic era, when it was widely used throughout Europe, he said. It is still the norm in France and Italy to assure transparency and equal opportunity.

After hearing nothing “for a long while,” he said, “I was then surprised when in July a list of finalists came out and I was on it for the Galleria Borghese in Rome and also the Uffizi.” After “very cordial” and very pointed interviews about his publications and experience, silence yet again.

Then came the 4 a.m. call from Rome.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Schmidt said.

Tech update wanted

Among the challenges he faces are streamlining the Uffizi’s ticketing process to eliminate waiting lines that can run to two or three hours, and improving “flow in the museum so not all tour groups gather around the same painting at the same time.”

He hopes to solve the problems with cutting-edge technology, ideally from an Italian firm willing to sponsor the work, but “I’m very open-minded, so if your readers have a firm like that, I’d like to hear from them.”

He expects to head for Italy in late October. His wife, Roberta Bartoli, an expert on 15th-century Florentine art who teaches at the University of Minnesota, will finish the fall term here. She grew up and studied in Florence, where they met when he was a graduate student.

“Roberta’s brother and nephew live in Florence and we have lots of friends there,” he said. “I worked there for seven years so this truly is a return to a city we love. The job is new, but the city is familiar.”